LAS VEGAS — The World Series of Poker kicks off again on Sunday. Last November, the event wrapped up its 42nd year with more than 8,600 players competing for the Main Event championship.
In the early years, the event only had dozens of entrants, and Tulsa native Bobby Baldwin has witnessed the transformation over the years with a poker career that has taken him from the Oklahoma and Texas poker backroom to the Las Vegas casino board
Baldwin is one of the biggest names in poker, taking part in the poker World Series in its early years and winning its Main Event in 1978 for $210,000. He was only 28 years old then, the youngest Main Event winner at that time.
Growing up in southeast Tulsa in the 1960s, Baldwin wasn't interested in much except playing pool and playing poker.
“I played pool at a place called Brookside Billiards,” he says. “They had a poker game in the back room. After some period of time I couldn't get a pool game anymore. I was a winning player at the time and just hung out at the pool hall, and then I became interested in the card game. When I was about 15 I joined in the game, and I lost every time I played.”
After graduating from Memorial High School in 1968, Baldwin studied business administration at Oklahoma State.
He continued to play poker in college, slowly improving his game and eventually quitting in his fourth year to pursue poker full-time, mostly in Texas and Oklahoma City.
In 1975, he began playing cards regularly in Vegas, culminating with his WSOP championship three years later.
“When you're 28 you think that you're going to win every time you play, but I was obviously happy to win the World Series of Poker. There were 43 players at that time — nowadays they have 8,000 players,” he said. “I didn't drink at the time, so there wasn't much celebrating. It was just packing up the money and trying to get it to the bank.”
While Baldwin found major success at the poker felt, including three other World Series bracelets, in the mid-1980s he used his business education to help run Las Vegas casinos.
In 1984, he became president of the Golden Nugget, the Mirage in 1987, and then named president of the Bellagio in 1998. Baldwin transitioned to a respected casino company executive.
In 1999, he became the chief financial officer of Mirage Resorts under casino impresario Steve Wynn, and in 2000 was named CEO of the merged MGM Mirage Corp.
His biggest task was spearheading the company's CityCenter project in 2005 on the Las Vegas Strip.
His official title is CEO of CityCenter, and he serves as MGM's chief
“I'm in charge of CityCenter, which has the Aria Casino Hotel, Mandarin Hotel, and another hotel, Vdara, which is part of CityCenter, and I have some residential towers,” he says. “We just finished CityCenter in December of 2009, so we're still refining our operation there. It was the most exciting project. It was the largest, about 18 million square feet, the company had ever undertaken. It was five years from start to finish, and it was about $8.5 billion and included residences, which was an interesting twist to the Las Vegas Strip. It was a lot of fun and has been very successful. Mostly right now I'm developing restaurants and nightclubs and casino improvements in the buildings we have.”
In 2003, Baldwin was elected to the Poker Hall of Fame. His unique life journey took him from teenage pool hustler to poker shark. And despite his duties as one of Las Vegas's leading executives, Baldwin still makes his way to the tables.
“I play a couple times a month and I play during the World Series of Poker. I have a place called Bobby's Room at the Bellagio, which is my room inside of the poker room that has two tables and is named after me. I mostly play there.”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Rockwall, Texas, and editor of www.Poker